Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos spoke Thursday at a workshop hosted by the University of Southern California Election Cybersecurity Initiative, describing how the state handled its elections during a pandemic.
Condos was among several speakers talking about a range of issues centered around cybersecurity, from how people, corporations, and political campaigns can safeguard their electronic data, protect themselves from ransomware attacks, to how folks can spot false or misleading information posted online.
Much of what was shared is available at electionsecurity.usc.edu/resources online.
“It was certainly a trying time because of the pandemic,” said Condos, speaking remotely. “And then of course we had the added cybersecurity issues that we had to deal with as well. And on top of all of that was the tremendous misinformation and disinformation that was out there trying to weaken voter confidence and the integrity of the U.S. elections. And those have really become the biggest enemy of our democracy.”
As soon as the pandemic started, said Condos, his office went to the Legislature, which was still in session, and convinced it to give him certain powers should the governor declare a state of emergency.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, ending it on June 15, 2021, after extending it numerous times.
Condos said decisions about mail-in ballots had to be made soon, given how complicated pulling it off well was expected to be.
“We had 275 different ballot styles, and we had to get to almost 500,000 people and make sure we got the right ballot to the right person and at the right return address for the town clerk for the ballot to come back,” said Condos.
Unlike many other states, Vermont doesn’t have county-level government, which would normally play a role in a state’s elections.
“So there’s a lot of things that we did to try to enhance that,” said Condos. “We added drop boxes all over the state where we hadn’t had them before. Like I said, we did the vote by mail, we used a mail house to mail the ballots out. We printed extra ballots because we knew we were still going to hold the polls open even though we were trying to drive down the number of people who would ultimately show up at the polls.”
Condos said that while elections are complicated to run, the goal is to make it simple and easy for eligible voters to cast ballots.
“We have been expanding the right to vote,” he said. “We believe that the more people who vote, the better our democracy. We also believe that the true voter fraud in this country is the denial of any American who is eligible the right to be able to cast a ballot.”
This past January, Vermont made universal mail-in voting permanent.
“And as part of that, we also added ballot curing which we did not have before, so if someone forgot to sign their envelope as required, before it would just be declared void, now we can actually call that person up and have them come in, confirm that it is their ballot, then they can sign it then,” said Condos.
Vermont is also among the states that have joined the Electronic Registration Information Center, “... where we can bounce our voter registration databases off, and determine if people who died somewhere else that were on our registration database, or they moved out of state, or they moved in-state, so it helps us to tighten up our voter registration even more so,” said Condos.
He said paper ballots should always be a fixture of elections, for security.
“To me, it’s a non-technological solution to the integrity of our elections, just having a paper ballot at the end of the day. So every vote that gets cast in Vermont, we have a paper ballot that matches that vote.”
Other speakers included Clifford Neuman, director of the USC Center for Computer Systems Security, who said someone looking to interfere with an election may be looking to do so on a number of levels besides altering vote totals. Often they’re looking to spread misinformation that will lead to fewer people voting. This could be by spreading distrust in the system to confuse people as to the hours and location of a polling place.
“But what we’ve seen since this last election is that the goal of the adversary might not even be to change the outcome, but simply to create distrust in what that outcome is,” he said. “Disinformation regarding fictitious voting or other issues of fraud, demonstrating real hacks that might have occurred trying to cast the impression that it’s much more widespread than it might actually be.”
Sarah Mojarad, lecturer at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, talked about disinformation, why it’s difficult to contain, and how people can identify it.
“I define disinformation as false information that is manufactured intentionally to appear credible, to deceive and confuse and distort facts,” she said, citing a false story from 2016 claiming actor Bill Murray was running for president.
Oftentimes, stories like these, she said, will appear credible, but their falsity can be spotted in a number of ways. With the false Murray story, no major news outlet was reporting it, and many times such stories won’t have named bylines or will have been authored by unknown journalists. She said doing a Google search for the name of the journalist is a good practice.
“And finally, with disinformation and misinformation, you’ll often see it elicits a very strong emotion. The emotions are typically fear and outrage,” she said.
Stories that stir emotions are more often shared on social media than others, she said.